Miami Shores tech consultant Rudo Boothe, now age 33, attributes his professional success — anyone’s professional success, actually — to having learned to read and perform basic math at age 4. So now with his own 19-month-old daughter, he makes sure to introduce those educational concepts at every turn.
From putting cans of tomato sauce in the supermarket cart to the backward countdown of the microwave timer, the duo these days is heavy into shapes and word-association.
“My attempt is to make numbers very important,” says Boothe. “Greatness is the objective. To be phenomenal at age 7.”
Boothe isn’t competitively parenting for mere sport, but rather for investing in his child’s future ability to make money — at least if you believe researchers in Scotland. Boothe, for his part, does put stock in University of Edinburgh findings that prove increased reading and math ability at age 7 will directly correlate with bigger paychecks later in life. And that these educational aptitudes are better predicators of income than even intelligence, education and socioeconomic status in childhood. American educators agree that early childhood education is critical for a lifetime of success, but offer their own proof as to why we shouldn’t dare discount the other variables.
Still, they also offer real and free ways we can introduce fundamentals to our young kids today so they can soar financially tomorrow.
“Children who have acquired more skill in reading at age 7 have a cascade of positive events,” says Timothy Bates, a University of Edinburgh psychology professor, “and by adulthood are earning significantly more.”
How much? Bates found an increase in one level of reading at age 7 translated into an $8,000 increase in yearly earnings by age 45. In fact, after following 17,000 people in the United Kingdom over four decades, Bates saw that young subjects who were better at reading and math still ended up later on having higher incomes, better housing and better jobs in adulthood than the kids who had perhaps higher IQs or richer parents, but read or performed math at lower levels. And he expects that here in the United States, where our system is more merit-based, we’d see the same effect, only stronger.
“These findings imply that basic childhood skills, independent of how smart you are, how long you stay in school or the social class you started off in will be important throughout your life,” says Bates.
Hold it right there, say a litany of U.S. educators. They agree early learning is critical to career success and — in preferring to use third grade as a marker — say that it produces kindergarten-ready kids who will accelerate. But they also point out that income will most certainly affect the outcome.
For starters, only between 40 percent and 55 percent of American children attend quality pre-kindergarten programs, says Libby Doggett, deputy assistant secretary of policy and early learning for the U.S. Department of Education.
There, kids not only learn the basics of reading and math but are also introduced to executive function skills, such as motivation and persistence,
“It’s not about ability,” says Doggett. “We create ability. And we create it early on.”
The kids most likely to skip quality Pre-K programs are — you guessed it — poor children, says Greg J. Duncan, a professor at University of California Irvine. That partly explains a gap — equivalent to about 20 IQ points or 120 SAT points — in reading and math skills between the nation’s richest 20 percent and poorest 20 percent of kindergarten-aged kids. Even worse, American schools are not a great equalizer because those in low-income areas tend to have teachers without tenure, behavioral problems that slow down entire classes and more mobile families, he says.
“Most of the gap comes from what goes on in the home,” says Duncan. “It’s not to say cognitive ability doesn’t play a role, but much of the gaps are caused by differences in parenting practices.”
Reading and math lessons are easily disguised as exciting activities, says Silvia P. Tarafa, principal of the Key Biscayne K-8 Center.
Most people read with kids, but don’t forget to introduce non-fiction books about their interests, such as dinosaurs or sharks, she says. Bake cakes often, relying on your measuring cups or sticks of butter to help with fractions. At the store, compare prices together and try to pay cash for the subtraction equation you’ll get in return.
Don’t miss the opportunity to demonstrate that four quarters make a dollar, or any other useful coin combinations. When they paint pictures, frame the masterpieces, which requires measuring the length, width and perimeter — but feel free to calculate the area of the picture too.
“When a child has heard the concepts at an early age,” says Tarafa, “that child will make a connection to the concept when it’s introduced by a teacher.”
Tarafasays parents can play a role in introducing the important concepts into daily activities. For example:
1. When packing for a trip, ask the child to bring three or four shirts and five pairs of pants, because number recognition — rather than counting on fingers — is critical.
2. Never use the term “take away” and instead say “subtract.”
3. Together, read non-fiction books about the child’s interest, such as sharks, cooking, outer space or dinosaurs.
4. At the store and online, always compare prices.
5. Pay with cash and discuss important coin combinations, such as how four quarters make a dollar.
6. Bake brownies, using your measuring cup and sticks of butter as tools to teach fractions.
7. Let them open a savings account and see how interest compounds.
8. Measure the items you’ll buy for your home, converting the lengths to inches, feet, yards — and don’t forget metrics.
9. Frame their artwork, but first, together measure the picture’s length, width and perimeter.
10. Remember, there are some things — such as multiplication tables — that need to be memorized.
This is one of an occasional series of columns by Miamian Brett Graff, a former U.S. government economist who writes about how economic forces are affecting real people.